After 45 years, he’s got the ‘hang’ of it

By on October 5, 2019

John Harris’ enduring passion for flight

John Harris with some renderings of the proposed Rogallo Museum.

Back in the early 1970’s, John Harris was living in Winston Salem, North Carolina and preparing to study Geological Oceanography at Old Dominion University grad school when a photograph in a newspaper changed his life.

The picture showed what was, at that time, an unusual sight. It was “a guy hang gliding in Utah.” Harris recalls. “And that was it. The moment I saw that picture, everything clicked. I thought, ‘well there’s an inexpensive way to fly,’ and I’d always been interested in flying…I’d never seen anything like it.”

Harris ended up contacting the man in the photo and, for about six hundred dollars, bought a glider that came with a short instructional film about how to take off and land. He never did finish his graduate work at ODU. But the idea for a business was born.

This year, Harris’ Outer Banks-based company, Kitty Hawk Kites, celebrates its 45th anniversary as a large and still growing empire. It includes three hang gliding schools, more than 20 retail outlets in six states and in excess of 400 employees in peak season.

The most recent addition, an outlet in New Jersey, opened this past spring. And when asked if there will be new Kitty Hawk Kites outposts sprouting up in the future, Harris — whose speaking style favors a midwestern economy of words— offers a simple, but decisive, “yes.”

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Harris grew up on a family farm north of Columbia, Missouri and went to what was then called the University of Missouri at Rolla. (Today, it’s the Missouri School of Science and Technology). After school, he got a job in Winston Salem at Western Electric, which had a contract to track submarines.

“My part of the job was to take a small technical team, go out and survey the ocean floor to look for places to lay listening arrays and to lay cable back to shore. We had this huge Hewlett Packard computer onboard ship,” he says, adding that in that job, he worked with “some of the first computers.”

Harris did move to Norfolk and begin his graduate studies at ODU, but that hang-gliding photograph had pushed his life in another direction. Shortly after buying that first glider, he contacted a friend, Ralph Buxton, who was then working as an engineer in Maryland.

“He drove down and met me a Jockey’s Ridge with a couple of other friends,” Harris recounts. “We pulled this [glider] out and we ran up and down the dunes until we learned how to fly it.”

Describing that first glider flight, he says, that “it was a much better sensation than I expected it to be. I thought it was going to be a lot of fun, but it was even better. Immediately, I thought ‘Oh my God,’ people are going to love this.’”

By the spring of 1974, Kitty Hawk Kites had set up shop on the site of The Nags Head Casino, and by that summer, Harris had moved to the Outer Banks full time. In order to capitalize the business, he let friends buy stock, although he he can’t remember what those shares sold for.

The name of the company was, of course, a tribute to the pioneers of flight, the Wright Brothers, particularly after Harris learned that they had attempted more than 1,000 gliding flights before ever using power.

Asked how long it was before he became confident that the business would succeed, Harris estimates that “it was at least three to four years. The thing that kept it going was that teaching people to fly was so much fun, so rewarding. We got so much back from the students, their enjoyment of it.”

It wasn’t always smooth sailing, however. “We’ve almost been out of business numerous times,” he says citing such issues as economic cycles, insurance challenges and tight credit. And then there was the fact that “we were asked to leave [Jockey’s Ridge] several times,” because of opposition to any commercial use of the property.

One time, Harris recalls, he and his crew were just finishing up the new Kitty Hawk Kites building in Nags Head, about three weeks from opening, when “I looked across [the bypass] and there was a Ranger on the other side driving a sign in the sand that said, ‘No Hang Gliding.’”

But the company was never banned from the park for long, he adds, noting that “the community went to bat for us and those decisions were eventually reversed.”

In 1992, Harris helped found the nonprofit Rogallo Foundation to honor the work of Francis and Gertrude Rogallo, Outer Banks residents who invented the flexible wing, earning Francis the nickname of the “father of hang gliding.”

Harris recalls the Rogallos as a key force behind the success of Kitty Hawk Kites as well as hang gliding in general, noting that he spent time at Jockey’s Ridge and at the garage shop. “The Rogallos helped by being good friends and great ambassadors for hang gliding,” he notes. “Kitty Hawk Kites would not be where it is today without the support of the Rogallos.”

Today, one of the foundation’s main projects is to build a Rogallo Museum.

It’s on the drawing board,” says Harris, displaying renderings of the facility.  “We would like it to be at Jockey’s Ridge State Park next to the Visitors Center…We’re in discussions with the state trying to work that out.”

The annual Outer Banks Brewtag Festival – described succinctly as a “celebration of flight and beer,” in which competitors to launch and fly an empty beer keg barrel — is a fundraiser for the Rogallo Foundation. This year it will be held at the Soundside Event Site on Oct. 26, with part of the money going to the foundation and part to Dorian disaster relief.

For Harris, the feeling of flight is compelling.  He says that with a high-performance hang glider, someone can travel about 60 miles an hour. And while he says the altitude record for a hang glider is about 24,000 feet, typically people fly “at anywhere from a thousand to eight thousand feet or so depending what part of the county you’re in,” he says.

And after almost a half century in the business, Harris still takes a few flights off the Jockey’s Ridge dunes, for what seems to be the sheer fun of it.

“It’s hard for me to put in words, but basically you feel yourself lifted off the ground,” he observes. “It’s really exhilarating to be able to climb.”

Harris also got his pilot’s license about three years ago and co-owns a four-seater plane that cruises at about 200 miles an hour.

“It’s possible to fly up to New Hampshire in a little over three hours,” he says with a touch of pride. “It’s a great airplane cause it’s fast.”

 

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